Mr. Leon Rooke was born in 1934 in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina – a small mill town not far from the Virginia border. One of three children, he was raised by his mother Louise, who worked as a weaver at the local textile mill (the J.P. Stephens mill featured in the film “Norma Rae,” starring Sally Field, which was the last major textile company in the South combating unionization). He knew early both that the racism common in his hometown was abhorrent to him and that he wanted to get out of that town as soon as he could. His was a childhood without privilege. Asked by his hardworking mother what he wanted for Christmas, he replied (age ten): a book. She bought him Terry and the Pirates. (The first books he personally purchased, at age fourteen by mail order) were Tolstoy’s Collected Stories and The Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein.) In high school he was sports editor of the school paper; his earliest ambition was to become a sports writer. While in high school he published a number of poems, some as “Today’s North Carolina Poem,” in the Raleigh News and Observer. After high school he worked for a year in the Trust Dept. of a Charlotte (NC) bank, then attended Mars Hill College, a small mountain school near Asheville. He wrote and published poems, and had plays produced, one among these taking first prize at the statewide drama festival in Chapel Hill.
He worked summers in an antiquarian book store in Asheville, and after a second year at Mars Hill transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There he majored for one year in journalism, then switched to Dramatic Art, taking Honours in Writing and winning a number of university prizes and awards and publishing nationally in such small poetry magazines as Free Verse, existaria, and Flame, a Texas magazine of poet Lillith Lorraine. In one of these magazines, a poem of his appeared opposite work by Langston Hughes, a considerable encouragement. Later on, he did graduate work at UNC’s Dept. of Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures, under a Screen Gems Writing Fellowship. During this and the earlier period he studied under and became friends with well-known N.C. writers such as Jessie Rehder, Max Steele, John Ehle, and the Pulitzer prize-winning dramatist Paul Green, wrote radio, stage, and television plays, taking roles in his own and in those written by others. His fiction first saw book print in the Grove Press anthology New Campus Writing, a collection of the best student writing across America. He worked three summers as actor and technician in “Unto These Hills,” an outdoor drama presented annually in Cherokee, N.C.
Drafted into the army, he took basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., and served two years in Alaska where duties as a mail clerk gave him ample free time to write. He was also clerk to the officer responsible for his unit’s daily training, and a prolific contributor to various Division publications, having become friends with a number of photographers and writers, which group staged a number of theatrical productions in Anchorage and on base. Chief among these, perhaps, was a production of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood,” Rooke playing the lead. An early novella, “Brush Fire,” published first in Saul Bellow and Kieth Botsford’s famous magazine The Noble Savage, is drawn from his Alaska experience. He next spent some years in San Francisco and New Orleans. A story set in the cheap hotel where he lived in San Francisco, “If Lost Return to the Swiss Arm” (message imprinted on his room key), was rejected forty-five times before being published and winning the O. Henry Prize.
Rooke returned to North Carolina in the early 1960s and worked with his close friend and former teacher John Ehle (author and founder of the North Carolina School of the Arts) on a number of social initiatives thought up by Ehle and championed by Governor Terry Sanford. Many of these were programs aimed at assisted black youth. Subsequently he worked two years as a writer in the University News Bureau, and free-lance journalist. He co-edited The Anvil, A Weekly Newspaper of Politics and the Arts, perhaps the most aggressively progressive publication in the South during this Civil Rights/Viet Nam War period. He became writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1967, he met Constance Raymond, a PhD student at Chapel Hill who was Editor of The Carolina Quarterly. Among their friends at this time were writers William Matthews and Russell Banks, then editors of a magazine and small press called Lillabulero, and the since-celebrated novelist Laurence Naumoff, at that time putting out (for one issue) the distinguished magazine Sample Copy. In 1969, LSU Press published Rooke’s first story collection, Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed (years later John Ehle would borrow half of this title for his own novel, Last One Home). In that same year, 1969, Connie and Leon were married, and promptly moved to Canada, where she took up a teaching position at the University of Victoria.
Their son Jonathan (now Director of Production and Facilities at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto) was born in l971. Soon thereafter they became Canadian citizens. The Rookes lived in Victoria for l8 years. Among their closest friends in the Victoria area writing community were, and remain, P.K. Page, Terence and Patricia Young, Carol and Mike Matthews, Marilyn Bowering, Michael Elcock, and Derk and Eva Wynand – as well as many others associated with The Malahat Review, which Connie edited for ten years with a good deal of help from her (sainted? sober?) husband. The Victoria period was punctuated by several summers in Mexico and three year-long sojourns: the year Leon was “Artist-in-Residence” at a Minnesota university, a year in England on a writing grant from Canada Council and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, and the year (1982-83) in which he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto. They moved four times in Victoria, including several years on the beautiful beach in Cordova Bay. Their last Victoria house was at one end of a beautiful, brief, and hidden lane at the other end of which was Alice Munro’s house, and in the middle of which is the house where Carol Shields lived many years later. (Readers interested in Connie’s take on houses are invited to seek out her PEN Canada anthology Writing Home, in which is contained her essay “Real-Estate Dreams” – McClelland and Stewart, 1997, pp 249-268.)
The first book of Leon Rooke’s to be published in Canada (The Love Parlour, Oberon, 1977) came about through the inventiveness, diligence and good graces of John Metcalf, whose telephone call brought Rooke out of a Minnesota classroom to a dean’s office, the dean saying, “I hope you make that quick.” Rooke said hello. The telephone voice said, “I’ve had a heckuva time chasing you down. Is this Rooke?” Rooke said, “yes, who’s this?” The voice said, “Never mind that. I’d like to publish a book of your stories, if you have enough that are good. Do you?” This exchange signalled the inception of a publishing alliance that has continued into the present, with scores of authors brought to print both in their own books and in jointly edited annual showcases of year’s best work, e.g. Oberon’s Best Canadian Stories, 1981 and 82, The New Press Anthology #1 and #2 (1984 and 85), The MacMillan Anthology #1 and #2 (1988 and ‘89), with pit stops at Oberon Press, ECW Press, General Publishing, MacMillan, and longer, yet unfinished sojourns at Porcupine’s Quill, Thomas Allen Publishers, and Biblioasis. For an extended examination of this affiliation, the reader could do no better than to seek out Metcalf’s own rendition of these times as is on view in his beguiling memoir An Aesthetic Underground, (Thomas Allen, 2003).
After Victoria, the Rooke’s took up residence in the Olde Hotel (1865) in the village of Eden Mills, Connie motoring the ten minutes to the University of Guelph, where she chaired the English Dept., later assuming new administrative heights. The first Eden Mills Writers’ Festival was launched within months of their arrival, now into its 17th year, delighting thousands each weekend following Labour Day.
More books, stories, poems, the odd long and short in stay Greece, in Turkey, France, Spain, Portugal, many of the Caribbean isles, Bali, Slovenia, Croatia, an away-station in Mexico, and elsewhere, always elsewhere – not forgetting Italy, glorious Italy, and all that dazzling merriment with Branko and his jolly-raucous, madcap crew.